Sensory Integration

by Gwen Suennen, M.A.

Have you ever wondered what enables our deaf or hard of hearing (DHH) child to attend/focus and perform in a certain way? One process which helps them is called “sensory integration”, which is the neurologic ability of our brain to organize information we receive through our senses and make appropriate motor and behavioral responses. It is essential for developing attention, body awareness, balance, fine and gross motor coordination, social/emotional growth, as well as academic skills. Without good sensory integration, learning is difficult and the child often feels uncomfortable about him/her self. This can lead to difficulty coping with ordinary demands and stress.

Unless the problems are severe, sensory integration problems are often overlooked, but are widespread among children. Slow learning and poor behavior in children can often be caused by inadequate sensory integration. Up to 85% of children with sensori-neural hearing loss have sensory integration problems, as the vestibular and auditory systems are formed from the same embryonic tissue and nerves.

Children with Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SDI) tend to overreact or underreact or to sensory input such as touch, sounds, and food textures. These include our vestibular sense (balance and movement) as well as proprioception (awareness of our bodies in space). What we need to be concerned with is which symptoms your child shows, which category they are having difficulty with, how much it interferes with their or other’s lives and what kind of impact it is having on their level of functioning. They may have a lot in one category and none in another or some in all categories.

If a child is hypersensitive (overeactive) to sensory input, they may exhibit the following:

  • avoid certain textures
  • dislike clothing tags or dislike certain clothing
  • picky eaters
  • react to light touch
  • distractible, impulsive
  • fearful reaction to ordinary movement activities such as on a playground
  • appear rigid in their movements

If a child is hyposensitive (undereactive) to sensory input, they may exhibit the following :

  • body whirling or crashing into objects
  • oblivious to pain or body position
  • unaware of food on their face
  • poor balance
  • appear awkward, stiff or clumsy
  • invade others’ space
  • touch people and objects constantly
  • crave intense, fast and spinning movements
  • touch people and pets too hard
  • clench fists and/or jaw
  • crash into people and objects
  • stomp feet while walking
  • like to hang upside down

A child may have a combination of hypo and hypersensitive characteristics. The first step toward helping your child with SID is to get an evaluation from an Occupational Therapist who is trained in Sensory Integration. The O.T. can assess SID, engage the child in arousing or calming exercises and recommend activities for home use. The O.T. may even recommend a brushing technique which involves a specific surgical brush and pressure touch.

The following are activities for use at home to stimulate the vestibular system and improve sensory integration:

Sensory diet
  1. biting crunchy snacks (carrots, pretzels, Cheerios, apples, chips, popcorn)
  2. sucking (orange wedges, juice bars, lemonade, applesauce, smoothies)
    • change length and diameter of straw
  1. fingerpaint with paint, shaving cream or pudding
  2. manipulating playdough and cutting playdough with scissors
  3. digging for items (rice tub, sand tray, pasta tray, gardening)
  4. eating snacks with different textures
  5. walking barefoot
  6. manipulating small objects (legs, jigsaw puzzles, lacing beads)
  7. examining natural objects (pine cones, feathers, sticks)
  8. popping bubble wrap
  1. swinging in circles on tire swing (10 times each direction)
  2. climbing on a jungle gym
  3. walking on uneven surfaces
  4. rolling down grassy hill
  5. crawling through tunnels or large cartons
  6. jumping from a step
  7. bounce/balance of exercise ball with watching TV or doing homework
  8. crab walks
  9. balancing on one foot
  1. push against wall
  2. pull kids on scooter (holding onto rope or hoop)
  3. kids pull themselves forward on scooter with rope or using arms
  4. chair push-ups
  5. punching bag hanging in doorway
  6. moving through an obstacle course
  7. wheelbarrow walk
  8. playing catch with a ball
  9. tug of war with blanket, towel or rope (then crash into pillows)
  1. flashlight tag
  2. balloon volleyball
  3. dancing with scarves
  4. tossing beanbags
  5. blowing bubbles
  6. use straw to blow cotton balls/feathers
  7. blowing whistles
  8. sucking through straws
  9. low light
  1. dancing/moving to music
  2. beating rhythm instruments
  3. jumping rope and chanting
  4. playing musical chairs (non-competitive)
  5. making up rhymes

For additional information on Sensory Integration Dysfunction, the following resources are helpful: